For nearly two-thirds of my adult life, I have been involved with cooperatives. While I have always been filled with passion about the spirit of cooperatives, the events of the pandemic have caused me to not only have a deeper appreciation of cooperatives but of the meaning of cooperation.

Since March, many of us have seen or experienced challenges, losses and disappointments. We’ve watched local businesses we love struggle to survive and individuals face financial obstacles and burdens that many would consider overwhelming. Admittedly, COVID has had a profound impact on our psyche and spirit. However, rather than let it fill us with hopelessness and despair, I’d like to focus on the many ways it has brought us together in cooperative support of the communities we love, albeit socially distanced.

During the past six months, it has been gratifying to watch communities come together in cooperation to support local restaurants and businesses or place signs recognizing high school seniors on our lawns in a spirit of cooperation, whether we had a child graduating or not. We’ve pooled our resources to support frontline workers with meals and other gifts, and have seen countless other random acts of cooperation and kindness.

Reflecting on my own workplace, I am prouder than ever to work for and be a part of a not-for-profit financial cooperative.  Our cooperative structure enabled us to create the first Crisis Assistance Relief Loan just days after the pandemic started and offer loan deferments and other forms of assistance to our member owners. Without hesitation, our volunteer board of directors, another benefit of the cooperative structure, supported our efforts to help members and the communities we serve in any way we could because it is our community, too. Cooperatives are not just in a community but also part of a community because they are owned by the people who live and work there.

The concept of cooperation is more powerful and more needed today than in any time in my recent memory. Cooperatives provide a significant positive economic benefit to and impact on their communities. For example, our cooperative structure saved 40,000 member-owners nearly $10 million last year through better rates and lower and fewer fees. Many re-invested those savings back into the community by shopping locally, building locally and giving locally. Overall, the financial benefit provided to the more than 750,000 Mainers who are part of a cooperative add up to hundreds of millions of dollars. The need for co-ops and the support they provide to the Maine economy should be embraced now more than ever.

In today’s world, people often complain about being disconnected. Cooperatives are the antidote to that because they help to connect people and communities to common interests, industries and goals. According to the Cooperative Development Institute, which supports and helps form and build cooperatives in the Northeast region, there are a variety of co-ops in Maine including financial, food, farming, electrical, dairy, fishing, housing, employee-owned businesses and others. The cooperative economy in Maine is not only alive and well but also growing, which means cooperation is growing, too. That’s a good thing.

This October will once again mark National Co-op Month in Maine and throughout the country. Let’s celebrate and highlight the important role that cooperatives and cooperation play in our communities. It represents what can be accomplished when we cooperate. Whether it’s joining a co-op that aligns with your values and interests, ordering takeout a little more frequently from local restaurants to show your support, arranging a socially distanced drive-by birthday celebration for a neighbor or friend, having someone who will listen to your financial challenges and offers ways to help, just to name a few.

While the past six months have, indeed, been trying, challenging and, at times, discouraging, let’s be energized in the spirit of cooperation. Cooperation is about coming together, most likely virtually these days, to make a difference, show support or to lend a hand. Get creative, get engaged, get cooperating! When we do, our community and our lives thrive!

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